-Hoshi sat in the shade of the well. The sun was hot the air dry and dusty as it always was. She could hear her mother and father humming through the screen of tall golden rice stalks. Somewhere hidden by those same gently swaying plants lurked an evil she knew would destroy her.
She had hurriedly lowered the large dipper bucket and turned the crank to raise it when it was just heavy enough to lift. She tied off the rope and tugged the bucket into position leaving it perched precariously on the stone rim above her head. Drops of tepid water dripped onto her head and slid down her face like tears. She smiled watching the beads of water form above her, wishing it would rain.
"Hoshi! Bring more water now!" Her mother called annoyed by her daughters dawdling.
"Coming mother!" Hoshi drew the large dipper bucket from the rim of the well and carefully poured the cool water into her own small wooden pail. She filled her bucket a little more than half way then carefully heaved it up off the ground. She wasn't strong enough to carry the full bucket and even this meager amount was difficult for the young girl to manage. She stepped into the rice picking her way towards her mothers voice as fast as she could.
"There you are lazy girl!" her mother chided when Hoshi appeared drenched in sweat and water sloshing from the heavy pail. "You are too slow Hoshi, you waste time daydreaming by the well and you still only bring half a bucket of water." Hoshi's mother dipped a large ladle into the bucket and sipped at the cool water. When her husband appeared she offered him the ladle then together they began watering their plants, one scoop of water directly on the knotty roots, not a drop spilled.
Hoshi had to make three more trips to the well before her mother was satisfied, they had been working all morning clearing harmful weeds from their paddies, watering the plants, and harvesting what was ripe or damaged.
By afternoon the work was done. Their fields were taken care of and the evening meal was being prepared.
Hoshi's mother had made rice with onion sauce. It was Grandfathers favorite and the old man said so smiling as he came through the door.
"It would smell better if we had some salt pork or at least a few fish." She muttered between bites.
"Tastes better than dirt." Her husband agreed.
Hoshi ate her meal alone in silence. The night air had grown cool towards evening, the paper covered windows shuddered in the growing wind.
"Come inside girl!" Grandfather called as Hoshi tried to sneak away to the yard.
"It is much to cold out there tonight, Hoshi." The girls father said soothingly from his cup of tea.
"Come child, tonight we make shoes!" Her mother said motioning Hoshi to a stack of old newspapers in a corner of the room. There was a bowl of rice flower paste next to the paper and next to that a bucket of water. Hoshi's mother lit the weathered oil lamp and placed it on a short stool in front of their work area.
Hoshi began to sort the paper.
"That looks like fun." The boy said. Hoshi didn't look up just nodded her head slowly as she smoothed another layer of paper over the shoe she had made.
"Why is yours so big?" The boy asked after a while.
"Because I have big feet like a white man." Hoshi whispered, the boy began to giggle , Hoshi stopped her work and looked at him annoyed. "Mama says she would have bound my feet when I was little if she knew they'd get this big." She wiggled her toes for emphasis.
"Maybe its not too late, maybe one day she will cut your foot in half so it will be as small as hers."
"That would be horrible!" Hoshi said in shock.
"What would be horrible, Hoshi?" her mother asked looking down her thin nose at the little girl.
Hoshi sat perfectly still staring in alarm up at her mothers burning gaze. Those dark little eyes held so much hatred that Hoshi was forced to look away. Look at her paste covered hands, the bits of paper sticking to her arms. Any thing but face that glare.
"Nothing mamma." She whispered hoping to end it there.
"I heard you say it Hoshi, what were you talking about?"
That cold glare still held.
"Nothing Mama , I –I was talking about nothing."
"Don't you lie to me girl! If you think it is so horrible here then lets see you make better somewhere else!"
With that she seized the girl by her arm and dragged her to the door.
"You stay out there until you can appreciate a warm meal and a roof over your head."
The door slammed firmly in the girls face. She huddled against it for warmth but the earth was cold and unforgiving beneath her bare feet. She wished she had her paper shoes.
"What did I do Nobu?" she asked, but the boy was nowhere to be seen.
Wrapping her arms around herself Hoshi stumbled off into the rice field, there was no moon but the stars lent enough light for her to pick her way along the footpaths. In no time she was standing in front of the well. Its cold, stone, wall pressed roughly against her as she squatted against it.
She knew he was there, he sat of the edge of the wall looking down at her. She turned her face away as he kneeled next to her and wrapped his arms around her. He was as cold as the stone.
"She hates me Hoshi."
"No she doesn't, she just hates that I talk to you." Hoshi mumbled pressing her face into his hollow chest.
"Because she cant."
"Of course she could I'm right here."
"Only I can talk to you Nobu, nobody would understand you like I do."
"But that's not fair Hoshi, you get to be there all the time."
"Some times I wish I were not here. Sometimes I wish I could just, disappear. "
"If you disappear, would I still be here ?" Nobu asked pulling away from Hoshi.
"If I'm gone you could come with me, there's no use being around if no one pays any attention to you."
"Sometimes its like I'am the only one who knows you're here."
"Hoshi!!" A gruff voice called from the rice stalks. "Hoshi!" it grew closer and soon a man in a rumpled shirt stumbled out of the night.
"Why didn't you answer me?" he snapped when he saw her stiffly climbing to her feet.
"I didn't know it was you Papa." She said softly.
"Hoshi you scared me, come." He took her into his arms and lifted her from the ground. "Never scare me like this again Hoshi, my Hoshi." He muttered pressing his face into her hair.
"Im sorry Papa" She yawned " and Nobu is sorry too" she pressed her face against his shoulder.
"Nobu? Who is Nobu, Hoshi?" The man asked .
"The boy who lives in the well." She whispered as she fell asleep.
Hoshi spent the next few days making shoes. She sat on a crate in the yard, adding layer on layer of paper until the soles were thick and sturdy. She bplaced her big feet into the damp paper and wriggled her toes, stretching the material to fit comfortably, otherwise it would be too tight and pinch her toes.
"Hoshi " her mother snapped as she entered the dim little house. "Go to the field and bring me two onions!"
"Yes, ma" Hoshi said placing her shoes in the corner next to the small hearth fire.
The vegetable field wasn't far from the house, Hoshi took her time carefully placing her feet between the rows of sprouting greens. She carefully dug up two onions being sure not to damage their tall green leaves.
"Hush now my child the wind is blowing" Nobu scrambled along beside her , singing at the top of his voice. A wide grin plastered over his face.
"Hush Nobu someone will hear you." Hoshi said wearily.
"No silly only you can hear me, you said so yourself." His blue eyes twinkled as called out louder still.
"but what if they're only pretending they don't, ignoring you ..like we had to do when Grandma was sick and couldn't keep herself clean." Hoshi whispered her eyes wide with fright.
'hush now my child soon it will be snowing!
little baby go to sleep,
in my heart you know I'll keep
you safe and sound
all year round'
"Nobu mother will disapprove !" Hoshi warned as the little house came into view through the rice stalks.
"Hush now Hoshi
so you think she cares for me
threw me in the well
so I couldn't tell !"
"That's not nice Nobu, I have go." Hoshi hurried back to her mother pondering what Nobu had said.
"Hoshi you take too much time on simple tasks!" her mother shouted as the girl came into view. " You are a worthless child! If you were a boy I would not worry so, but it is not right for girls to dawdle alone! You see what happen to Mailin"
"Yes, ma" Hoshi sighed.
"And look at your hair Hoshi, Smooth it down ! Your hair is too wild!" She grabbed the girl by her shoulder and scratched futilely at her tangled hair. "If this hair was any worst you'd look like a beggar child. Yuck, you are filthy go wash right now!"
Hoshi's cheeks burned with embarrassment as she crossed the yard dragging her feet in the dust. Grandfather sat on a stool just outside the door shaking his head as she passed by him. She wanted to run and hide. To disappear…
"She wishes I were a boy." Hoshi whispered into the well.
"But you're not. You're a girl, a good one." His voice echoed up to her.
"She hates me, no matter what I do its not good enough. I should just run away."
"But you cant Hoshi. You know what happens then, when they find you."
Hoshi shivered at the memory.
"But then what should I do?" She pulled up her pail and dipped a rag into it.
"Maybe if you act more like a girl she would like you better."
"But I do Nobu," she wiped the dirt and grime from her face with the wet rag. " she just yells even more."
"Then maybe you should act like a boy." Nobu said helping her out of her baggy shirt.
"I don't know how boys act!." Hoshi wailed in despair.
"They act like dirty slobs! That's something you're good at Hoshi!" A nasty voice taunted from behind her.
She turned in time to see Maylin Huan and her older brother Tsai dropping their own rope and bucket into the well.
"Didn't your mother teach you it is not decent to wash in public? You don't know who may be watching you!" Maylin sneered in disgust, Tsai stared down into the well as if he didn't hear her. Hoshi , cheeks burning snatched up her shirt and held it against her flat chest.
"Or maybe" Maylin continued "She wants you to be seen naked out here, hopefully some foolish man might want you, although you don't have much to want." She laughed nastily flicking her finger at Hoshi.
"Yeah, well my mother says you have too much for men to look at already, maybe you've let someone do more than just look!" Hoshi stared up at Maylin trying to look bolder than she felt. Maylin was only two years older than Hoshi.
While Hoshi still held the ambiguous form of a child Maylin was undoubtedly woman. She shifted from foot to foot trying to hold the younger girls stare but finally looked away busily helping her older brother pull their bucket from the well.
Hoshi watched as they walked away. Maylin was determined not to look back, she walked stiffly beside Tsai her back straight hips swaying.
"She's such a pig!" Hoshi muttered to Nobu. Tsai turned a vacant gaze back at the little girl and was almost yanked off balance by his sister.
"Pay attention Tsai!" she snapped, the older boy simply nodded and stumbled on disappearing into their field at last.
"I hate that Maylin Huan!" She draped her shirt over the well and removed her baggy trousers. "She thinks she's such an adult. But just because she does grown up things with men in the fields doesn't make her a grown up!"
Nobu stood quietly his strange blue eyes clouded with anger.
"Don't worry Hoshi, she'll get what's coming to her." He helped her lift the bucket and slowly pour the cold water over her head. "I have an idea Hoshi." He whispered, as she got dressed.
"What is it ?"
"I am going to teach you how to be a boy, but we're going to need a few things from the house."
"Alright. " Hoshi said after she was fully dressed and Nobu had explained his plan to her. She ran home and carefully wiped the mud from her feet before tiptoeing to the back of the room where her mother kept her private things. In a little wooden box she took a blue plastic comb a pair of rusty scissors and an old make up compact with a dirty mirror inside. Hiding these things in her shirt she dashed through the rice and was safely at the well before her mother knew she had been there.
"Ok now what ?" She called leaning against the well to catch her breath. She waited a few minutes longer and called again. "Nobu ? what are we going to do now?"
She heard a rustle in the rice stalks and turned about, Someone was standing across from her at the well, but it wasn't Nobu.
Tsai Huan stared blankly at her from across the well. He had both hands clasped behind his back. He always looked as if he had a secret to tell, but he never spoke a word to anyone but his sister. Hoshi's mother had warned her to be wary of Tsai Huang, she said his mind wasn't all there. He might be dangerous. Tsai smiled, but only one side of his mouth moved, the other drooped towards his small chin.
"Hi Tsai." Hoshi squeaked backing away from the teenaged boy. He cocked his head to the side and lowered his eyes to the well as if waiting for something to crawl up out of it.
"What are you doing here?" Hoshi asked from a safer distance. Where is Maylin, Hoshi thought.
The smile seemed to slide off his face being replaced with a painful grimace. Hoshi took another step back.
"Nobu!" Tsai grumbled, his voice sounded wet and choked. He pointed down into the well, gesturing with his whole hand.
Hoshi looked at him strangely.
"What do you want with Nobu?" She asked balling her fists at her side. Tsai shook his head and swatted at the air in front of his face.
"Nobu." he said again repeating the gesture, then shrugging his shoulders awkwardly and smiling again.
"Leave me alone, you're just making fun of me!" Hoshi yelled at Tsai, he stumbled back a few paces and stared at her vacantly. "You heard me get out of here, go home !" She waved her arms at him threateningly.
Tsai turned and shamble away, his gait uneven and dangerously off balance. He disappeared into his family's field. Hoshi waited until she could no longer hear him to call to Nobu again.
"I'm sorry Hoshi." He said softly.
"Why didn't you come, I thought he would hurt me!" Hoshi said close to tears.
"I didn't want to see him, he scares me "
"He scares me too, Grandfather says its because he's simple."
" I don't think he's simple. He's just different , like you."
"What do you mean by that?" Hoshi asked indignantly.
"I don't mean that you're simple. Its just, Tsai talks to me too, but I don't think he can see me , like you see me."
"Oh." Hoshi replied
"But never mind him, did you find the scissors?" He asked.
Hoshi hesitated for a moment then passed the pilfered items to Nobu. He took the rusty blade from Hoshi and began snipping away at her tangled locks.
"Are you sure this will work?" Hoshi asked nervously as the first few locks fell to the ground.
"I'm positive!" Nobu grinned. He then took the comb and ran it through the girls newly cropped hair. After a few more snips he was satisfied with his work and told her to open the compact. Hoshi did as she was told, fumbling with the catch on the lid. Finally it snapped it open and the little girl gasped at the blurry image which stared up at her.
"I look just like you!" she gushed throwing her arms around Nobu's neck. She held the mirror at arms length trying to fit both their reflections in the dirty glass.
"Except for you're eyes Nobu we could be the same person. Maybe even twins!" she whispered conspiratorially
"Maybe." Nobu mumbled after a while staring at their shared reflection in the mirror.
Hoshi waited until late evening to sneak back into the house. She replaced her mother's items as quickly as possible and lay down on her pallet feinting sleep when her parents came in from the field. She held her breath as her grandfather passed over her and sighed audibly when she heard her father's soft voice. She silently thanked him for not waking her.
Hoshi snuck out of the house before sunrise. She ran to the well to fetch water for the morning tea. She took her fathers yoke and two pails from the side of the house and hurried to the well, calling excitedly to Nobu.
"Where are you?" she panted in the cold morning air. She listened closely for the blue-eyed boys reply. "Nobu, I need your help, these buckets are way too big for me, come one, don't be so selfish!"
She listened again watching her breath rising before her eyes. Suddenly a sound from the well brought her to the rim. She stared down into the shadowy depths, it was a long way down and she couldn't see the water. But she could hear it lapping against the cold stone. Above that sound was a soft gasping cry.
"Fine then" she called into the well, "I'll do it myself." She lifted the first bucket on to the rim of the well and tied the handle to the braided rope hanging there. Carefully she lowered the bucket listening to it scrape the sides as it dipped towards the water. The bucket swiftly filled and she pulled with all her might pushing against the wooden post as she cranked the handle to raise it. When it was high enough she reached and dragged it across the rim and onto the sandy ground.
"Stupid Nobu!" she muttered panting to catch her breath. "If you would just help me it wouldn't have taken so long." She raised her voice in hopes that he would hear her.
She looked up at the sky, which was swiftly brightening. And rubbed her sore arms. If she were to get home before her father left she would have to hurry. She lay back against the cold stone of the well and closed her eyes.
Somewhere far off she heard some one whispering quietly, she opened her eyes but the sound had stopped. She tied the second bucket to the rope. Even the empty bucket was heavy she fumbled with the crank then gave up and shoved the bucked over the rim listening to it clatter its way to the bottom. The hand crank began to slowly unwind as the bucket filled with water.
Suddenly the rope tightened pulled down by the immense weight of the bucket. Hoshi gasped as the crank began to unwind spinning crazily as the pail fell deeper into the well. The rope whizzed by the crank was a blur of motin too fast for Hoshi to grab hold of.
Panicking she turned to run but she knew her father would be mad if she lost his bucket or broke the well crank. She ran back tentatively reaching towards the rope as if sped out of sight.
The rope was almost to its end Hoshi watched horrified as the crank sped on then stopped with a sudden jerk and cracking of wood. She looked at he rope drawn taught with the weight pulling against it. The large knot at the end of the rope kept it from unraveling entirely.
Tears poured from Hoshi as she reached out over the rim of the well. Her trembling fingers brushed the rope. The crank let out a soft tick as the knot slipped a little. Hoshi bit her lip and leaning further out from the rim grasped hold of the rope with both hands. The crank was silent as she began to pull up her fathers bucket. Hand over hand her scrawny arms straining with the weight against them. She could hear the bucket scraping against the wall now, just a little more, she gritted her teeth and pulled harder backing away from the well.
Coils of damp rope were wrapped around her ankles by the time the bucket became visible over the rim. Her shoulders burned with the strain, but she was proud that she, Hoshi had been able to pull up her fathers big bucket all by herself.
She relaxed her grip on the rope and wiped the sweat from her brow. The sky overhead was light enough to make out the seeds topping the stalks in the fields, but where she stood was still in the shadow of night.
Hoshi took a step towards the well, eyeing the crank apprehensively, should I loop the rope back over the crank? She wondered. Yes she decided and began looping the wet rope over crank mechanism the way she had seen her father and Mr.Huan do when they changed the rope.
When the rope was secure Hoshi beaming proudly reached over the rim gripping the handle of the bucket with tentative fingers, it was heaver than it should have been , even if it was full of water. She pulled it towards her and peered down into it.
There was no water. At the very bottom of the bucket lay a baby, as Hoshi looked down at it, it opened wide startling blue eyes and began to wail. Hoshi cried out as well, just as the wood snapped with the weight of the rope sending the bucket the baby and Hoshi tumbling into the dark maw to the cold water below.
"Nobu!" Hoshi screamed as she was slammed against the slippery inner side of the well. She fell for what seemed like hours, then just as suddenly as it had began, the falling stopped with a jerk that slammed her against the wall again. Far below the water lapped against the cold stone but Hoshi was safe for the moment, suspended by the rope.
"Nobu, help me! Please!" Her scream echoed up the well but was lost before it reached the top. She was so far down that she could barely make out the faint circle of light.
" Nobu, please help me, I m sorry if I upset you, Nobu." Hoshi whispered clinging to the bucket, the blue baby in the bucket began to wail again. Louder, more breathy than before. Hoshi hoisted herself up into the bucket, marveling at how large it seemed as she fell in and leaned against the wooden side staring at the blue eyed baby.
"Nobu where are you?" She cried. The baby whimpered softly at the sound of her voice, blinking wide blue eyes at her.
Tentatively Hoshi reached towards him taking his little form into her arms and warming him against her chest where he was soon fast asleep.
Hoshi dozed fretfully; waking now and then at small sounds from the well, around her the water was rising. The baby seemed heavier in her arms; he had grown in the time they had crouched there. He was almost half her size now, his sleeping form curled into her lap, his thick eye lashes laying against his skin which only had a slight blue tinge left. He was warming rapidly to her touch.
She dozed again and when she awoke the baby was gone and Nobu was leaning against her. His long thin arms wrapped about her neck.
"Why didn't you answer me Nobu. I was so scared." She whispered shivering.
Nobu didn't answer; he was staring at his feet. His toes were long and thin, the second toe longer than the first.
"Where did the baby go?" she asked. When he didn't answer she continued to talk. "It was you wasn't it, you pulled the bucket down and broke the crank. You made it so that I would fall in here. Why Nobu."
"Because I' am lonely in here." He whispered, "it's always so cold, and I have no one to talk to."
"But you can talk to me Nobu! And you can come and live in the hut with me and Mama and Papa, and Grandfather."
"No I cant Hoshi. They don't like me. They put me in here."
"How could you say that Nobu. My Papa has always wanted a boy, and my grandfather would never let anyone throw you in here!"
"But they did Hoshi. They threw me away and they kept you! Its not fair that you get to live in a nice warm hut , and eat nice food and have parents who love and take care of you! You're the selfish one Hoshi, you never think about me, you have everything but you still complain while I have nothing! While I have to suffer in here all alone!" Nobu's voice was louder.
Angrier than Hoshi had ever heard anyone before.
"What are you talking about Nobu. Why would my parents throw you away?" Hoshi's lip trembled as she stood up causing the bucket to rock and sway.
"They didn't mean to throw Me away! It should have been You!" he growled looking up at her with angry blue eyes. "Don't you get it Hoshi! We were twins!"
"That's not possible Nobu!" Hoshi protested backing away from his menacing glare. They were both crying now and Hoshi hated to cry in front of others, especially him.
"Stop it Nobu , you're scaring me !" she wailed as he reached out and grabbed her by the shoulders shaking her back and forth. Screaming in her face.
"I'm scared everyday Hoshi! I'm all-alone all the time! It's not fair that you get to live and I had to die. It's not fair! It's not fair! ITS NOT FAIR!" The bucket banged against the side of the well the wood splintering.
Hoshi seemed to be slipping away; cold water was washing over her. Filling her mouth, seeping into her nose, blurring her vision. Far away she heard a voice calling her name, Her fathers voice filtered down to her, she heard herself laughing gaily. Her limbs were cold and heavy dragging her down into the depths; she closed her eyes, letting the cold seep into her bones.
Father and grandfather were just coming out of the house when the child staggered out of the rice field.
Father turned at the sound of heavy footsteps; he stared at the child with wide eyes, a frightened gasp stuck in his throat. Grandfather watched through squinted eyes then quickly lifted the adult sized yoke from the child's thin shoulders.
One of the buckets was leaking badly, the other filled to the brim with well water.
"Papa?" the child whispered with a bright grin.
"Nobu..?" he whispered reaching forward pressing his hands against the round face. The warm brown eyes that looked so much like his own. He fell to his knees crying as he held his child against his chest. "Nobu.." he sobbed into the boys cropped hair.
"Wife, wife come quickly , our son has returned to us!" Hoshi's Father called holding the child at shoulders length and regarding him through teary eyes.
Nobu smiled at his mother. She stood in the doorway of the hut an onion in one hand a small paring knife in the other. She seemed confused for a moment then like the sun appearing out of a cloudy sky, the light of understanding dawned in her eyes. And she screamed, backing further and further away from the boy. The son she had accidentally drowned on the night of his birth.
Grandfather screamed as well, catching everyone's attention. He was holding onto the yoke both buckets still attached. He slowly lowered it and backed away from the puddle of water spreading beneath the leaking bucket.
Nobu, and his father hurried over and peered into the rapidly emptying bucket. There on the bottom lay a small blue figure. A thatch of badly cropped black hair topped its little head. Its arms were reaching up as if warding off something frightening; little fingers hooked like claws each with a tiny crescent of blood caked beneath. Wide blue eyes stared sightlessly up at the sky.
"Who is she?" Nobu asked his father.
"This was your sister, you finally found her Nobu."
"Sister?" he asked.
"Yes." Grandfather replied. " You were twinz, your mother drowned her in the well a long time ago. She has haunted you all these years, as you have haunted her Now that we have her body here we can finally lay her to rest."
They buried the little girl, bucket and all in the little graveyard behind their house. She lay next to several other sisters, nameless face less. Forgotten.
"Thank you for letting me live." Nobu whispered patting the earth into place around the little gravesite.
Hoshi smiled. And said nothing.